WASHINGTON — The Little Sisters of the Poor have filed a petition requesting that the Supreme Court affirm the religious exemption protecting them from having to comply with the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act.
The renewed petition comes after several states, including Pennsylvania and California, sued the Little Sisters of the Poor in response to an exemption granted to them in 2017 after their last appearance before the Supreme Court.
“The states are arguing that even though there’s injunctions in the mandate in the Little Sisters’ case in this country, it violated the law for the federal government to issue a religious exemption,” Diana Verm, senior counsel with the Becket law group, told CNA. Becket is providing legal counsel for the Little Sisters of the Poor.
“The Little Sisters just want to go back to serving the elderly poor,” said Verm. “If the Supreme Court rules in their favor, they’ll be able to do so.”
The Little Sisters of the Poor are a Catholic religious order dedicated to the care of the elderly poor in addition to their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
When the HHS contraceptive mandate was announced in 2011, the sisters were told that they would not be grandfathered in and would have to provide contraception to their employees through their insurance plan, in violation of their religious faith. Despite being a religious order, the Little Sisters of the Poor did not qualify as a religious employer, as they serve and employ people of all faiths.
In 2013, the order first filed suit against the Department of Health and Human Services, claiming that the mandate was a violation of their religious freedom. They were granted an emergency injunction at the end of that year that prevented them from having to pay thousands of dollars in fines for not complying with the mandate.
Three years later, the Supreme Court sided with the Little Sisters and ordered the government to come up with a solution that would appease all sides. In 2017, this solution came in the form of a new rule from the Department of Health and Human Services that exempted religious nonprofits from the mandate.
Verm noted that throughout the six-year legal process, not a single person has been presented as being unable to obtain contraception due to working for a religious employer under the exemption. In its own suit against the sisters, Pennsylvania has admitted that there are many other ways for a woman to get contraception aside from her employer.
Presently, an injunction granted by a Colorado court protects the religious order from the mandate and preserves the exemption for religious-based nonprofits.
If the Little Sisters of the Poor do not win this court case, Verm said, they would have to pay thousands of dollars in fines to the government. She said, “That would be crippling.”